Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.
Please report any problems with Daily Reflections here.
Saturday, March 11
Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to one of the major questions of this gospel, the true identity of Jesus: ˝You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.ţ Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname ˝Rockţ (perhaps closer to ˝Rockyţ in English) was given to the man who made that confession, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, ˝Simon Johnsonţ). It was in Simon's fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be ˝truly the Son of Godţ (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church. The great prominence of this ˝Rocky Johnsonţ(Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among those were the churches at Antioch and Rome.
As we see by comparing this account to Mark 8:27-30, the early preaching and narrative tradition of the Church ˝fixedţ this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is rare in the Gospels for an individual event to become so fixed in this way.
Caesarea Philippi is situated on the southern slope of Mount Hermon, which is the highest peak in Palestine. Near it are the pools of Benaias, one of the chief sources of the Jordan River. The name Benaias is derived from the god Pan, and the name of the city, Panion, was changed to Caesarea when Herod's son, Philip, rebuilt it and dedicated it to Caesar Augustus. The name Caesarea Philippi thus refers to both men, Caesar and Philiip.
The reader observes that the question of Jesus is differently phrased among the three Synoptic Gospels. In Matthew the question is also a matter of auto-identification; there is the presumption that Jesus is the Son of Man.
Such is the determining inquiry-the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth-the proper determination of the Who that poses the question itself. The history of the seven Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Church illustrates that all other doctrinal questions are reducible to this one question: Just who is Jesus?
Earlier, Matthew had touched on the suspicion that Jesus was really John the Baptist returned to life (cf. 14:1-2). He returns to it now (verse 14). We should find it significant that some of the Lord's contemporaries resorted to prophetic history as a way of explaining Jesus. He resembled the prophets more than anyone else they could think of. Elijah, after all, had never really died, and his return was still expected (cf. Malachi 3:1,23).
Matthew also includes Jeremiah, whom he regarded as a ˝typeţ of Christ. Besides here, Jeremiah is mentioned two other times in Matthew (cf. 2:17; 27:9). In addition, Matthew several times alludes to Jeremiah, who is clearly one of his favorites.
When Jesus addresses the view of the disciples themselves (verse 15), it becomes clear that what is sought is the identity of Jesus Himself. The ˝youţ in this question is plural and emphatic. That is to say, the disciples are being contrasted with everyone else. The distinguishing mark of true discipleship is the perception of who Jesus is.
Although all the disciples are addressed, it is Simon that answers (verse 16), as the spokesman for all the apostles. Throughout the Gospels he is the only one who ever serves in this way.
Peter's confession itself is far more ample, precise, and developed than in Mark and Luke, and it corresponds more closely to the full Christological confession of the Christian Church. It confesses a great deal more than Jewish Messianism (Compare 21:37-38; Hebrews 1:1-2).
To appreciate the Matthean expansion (verse 17), it is useful to compare it to the Markan sequence. In Mark's version, Peter's confession leads directly, without interruption, to Jesus' reprimand of Peter. In Matthew this sequence is completely abandoned, and Jesus first blesses Peter. What Peter confesses cannot be humanly known; it transcends ˝flesh and bloodţ (cf. 11:25-27---observing the same verb, ˝revealţ). What we have here is a description of the faith of the Church (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6).
Such is Jesus' assessment of the answer Peter gives to His question, ˝Who do you say that I am?ţ The orthodox answer to this question is the matter of divine revelation. The confession follows the vision. The Church testifies to what She knows.
When Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus identifies Peter (verse 18). This identification is very important, because it has to do with the foundation of the Church. We have already learned in Matthew (10:2) that Simon's nickname was Kephas, meaning ˝rock.ţ This nickname comes into play as the foundation stone of the Church. Indeed, this is the first of only three times, all of them in Matthew, that the word ˝Churchţ is found in the Gospels. What Jesus says is, ˝You are the Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.ţ What does this mean?
First, the pronouncement is related to Peter's Christological confession. The rock on which the Church is built is, first of all, the confession of Jesus' true identity as Son of the Living God. The Lord's pronouncement to Peter, therefore, must not be separated from Peter's confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That confession is the foundation stone on which the Church is built. This was, it would seem, a common metaphor. Indeed, this is how St. Peter himself interpreted the Lord's words here; cf. 1 Peter 2:4-8 (also 1 Corinthians 3:11).
The first meaning of the Rock, then, on which the Church is to be built, is Christological. It is the confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.
In addition to this meaning, does the identification of Simon as the rock of the Church have some reference to his specific ministry in the Church? Perhaps it does. While the first meaning of the rock has to do with Christology, the New Testament knows a secondary and dependent meaning-the apostolic and prophetic ministries (cf. Ephesians 2:19-22). We also observe an ˝apostolicţ meaning for the image of the rock in Revelation 21:14. This is later reflected in the Creed's description of the Church as ˝apostolic.ţ
This secondary meaning, if it is (as I believe) intended here, is inseparable from the Christological meaning. That is to say, the Apostles are the rock of the Church in the sense that they are the authoritative witnesses to, and proclaimers of, the true identity of Jesus.
This is the reason why some of the Church Fathers understood Peter, in this text, to represent the bishops of the Church, because the bishops were (and still are) regarded as the legitimate successors of the Apostles. It is well known that this was the interpretation of St. Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, for instance.
Even if we do not follow Cyprian's lead in this interpretation, it is important to stress (because Matthew does) the ecclesiastical, the institutional, aspect of this verse. Peter's confession is not an individual taking Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. Peter here is the spokesman for the Church and makes the Church's profession of faith.
The words that follow (verses 18-19) indicate that the authority is not given to Peter solely. As St. Cyprian of Carthage observed with respect to this text, Peter speaks as the representative all of the apostles, so that what Jesus says to Peter He says to all of them. Likewise, the authority here conferred on Peter is conferred on all the Apostles. This is why, as Cyprian also observed, what is said here to Peter in the singular is later said to all the Apostles in the plural (1*:18,27).
What, then, are the keys given to Peter? They are the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is to say that Jesus Himself shares with the Apostles His own authority to bind and loose (cf. 9:8). This statement of Jesus indicates a very ˝highţ view of ecclesiology and a very ˝highţ view of apostolic authority.
The metaphor of the key comes from Isaiah 22:20-25, which describes the installation of Eliakim over David's royal house. These words apply to the Apostles in God's house, and the authority thus conferred indicates a wide discretion; making rules (canons) and making exceptions to them, imposi8ng and absolving from excommunications, forgiving and not forgiving sins (cf. John 20:23). We observe an example of the exercise of such authority in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, a case involving elementary Church discipline. We note that Paul speaks with the serene sense of authority to bind and loose. This text in Matthew means, then, that the Lord will support and back up the authority exercised in His name in the Church.
Since this promise to Peter is not found in Mark and Luke, it is worth inquiring where it was preserved, so as to end up in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is interesting that these words of Jesus do not appear in Mark, which was the specifically Roman Gospel, reflecting the preaching of Peter at Rome. The promise appears, rather, in Matthew, associated with the Church in Syria, and perhaps more specifically with Antioch, where Peter was important in the founding of the local Church. If the promise to Peter is to be understood as applicable to one local church in particular, that church would seem to be the one at Antioch.
Sunday, March 12
Matthew 16:21-28: Having made the defining proclamation of Christological faith in answer to the first great question of the Gospel (˝Just who is Jesus?ţ), the Apostle Peter now starts to disgrace himself by resisting the correct answer to the second great question of the Gospel: ˝What does Jesus do?ţ
There is a massive contrast between verse 17 and verse 23: ˝Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. . . . ˝Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.ţ In the first case Pter sees what it is humanly impossible to see. In the second case he does not savor (phronein) the things of God, but the things of men.
In the first case he is a ˝rockţ in the sense of a foundation stone. In the second he is a rock that a man may trip over, a rock of stumbling, a skandalon (cf. 13:41; 18:7). Jesus words are a warning and threat to Peter, because scandal is that which brings final judgment. Peter becomes Satan!
In spite of being reprimanded here by the Lord, and notwithstanding the solemn warning that Jesus will give him at the Last Supper, Peter will continue to resist this ˝word of the Crossţ right through to the Lord's Passion, finally denying Him three times under the pressure of questioning. It is no small thing for a man to be called ˝Satanţ by the One whom he has just identified as ˝the Son of the living God.ţ Nor would this be the last occasion on which Peter would be obliged to suffer a public rebuke (cf. Galatians 2:11).
Monday, March 13
Matthew 17:1-8: The Lord's transfiguration repeats the revelation made at His baptism, where the Father's voice identified His Son. This revelation of Jesus' unique relationship to God is the primary substance of the Christian faith, as we have just seen in Peter's confession. Matthew has already treated this matter in 11:25-27, and he continues the theme here. This relationship of Jesus to God is the source of the ˝authorityţ (exsousia) with which Jesus teaches and heals and forgives sins and sends forth the Church in mission at the end of this gospel. While Matthew's account of the Transfiguration is substantially identical to that of Mark (and both are quite different from Luke's in emphasis), he does omit Mark's (9:9f) reference to the disciples' lack of ˝understandingţ with respect to the return of Elijah. This omission fits a preoccupation that we have already seen in Matthew.
Other features of Matthew's account are likewise special to this gospel. The comparison of Jesus' transfigured face to the sun, for example, is proper to Matthew (verse 2). Although it is possible that this detail has no particular theological significance, it is worth remarking that Matthew elsewhere mentions the sun in the context of glory.
We next observe that Matthew names Moses before Elijah (verse 3), thus toning down Mark's emphasis on Elijah.
In verse 4 Peter calls Jesus ˝Lordţ--Kyrios (contrast with Mark's ˝Rabbiţ), the technical post-Resurrection title of Jesus. That is to say, in Peter's address here we are dealing with the fully articulated faith of the Church.
In Mark and John the disciples sometimes address Jesus as ˝Rabbi,ţ but in Matthew and Luke never. Indeed, in Matthew the only person to address Jesus as ˝Rabbiţ is Judas Iscariot, who does so twice (26:25,49).
Peter prefaces his suggestion about building three tabernacles with the caveat ˝If you will.ţ This emphasis on the Lord's will is important in Matthew's approach to prayer (cf. 6:10, contrasted with Luke 11:2-4, where the clause is missing).
We observe also Matthew's omission of Mark 9:6 (˝he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraidţ). As we have had occasion to remark elsewhere in these comments, Matthew is reluctant to portray the disciples as dull or ignorant. Here again he strikes out the idea.
All of verses 6 and 7 are proper to Matthew, and the detail about prostration is especially dear to this evangelist (cf. 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20, 29:9-all of these instances found only in Matthew). It is obvious that Matthew is writing for Christians whose normal attitude toward Jesus Christ is summed up in the act of adoration. This says much of his Christology.
In this place, moreover, the intimacy of verse 7 presents a strong contrast to the transcendence of verse, both of them paradoxical components of the disciples' relation to Christ.
Tuesday, March 14
Matthew 17:9-13: Once again Matthew omits a verse from Mark (9:10: ˝So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meantţ), a line indicating ignorance on the part of the disciples. As we have observed, Matthew tends to leave out such indications, because he regards correct understanding as part of discipleship itself.
Since, as it appears, Matthew is reliant on Mark for much of his material, and since Mark often portrays the disciples speaking in ignorance, Matthew is often obliged to adjust the narratives in order to make the point he wants. We may note this development by contrasting Mark 4 with Matthew 13. Thus, Mark 4:10 (˝But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parableţ) becomes Matthew 13:10 (˝Why do You speak to them in parables?ţ). That is to say, the disciples in Matthew do not ask Jesus to explain the parable. Then, Mark's line ˝Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?ţ (4:13) is completely omitted in Matthew.
These differences carry over to the explanation of the parable. In Mark 10:15 we read ˝When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts,ţ whereas in Matthew's version (13:19) we read, ˝When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.ţ
Similarly, Mark 10:20 says simply, ˝these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit,ţ while the parallel text in Matthew (13:23) says, ˝he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces.ţ
Finally, only Matthew, not Mark, finishes the chapter on the parables of the Kingdom with the following question and answer: ˝Jesus said to them, 'Have you understood all these things?' They said to Him, ˝Yes, Lordţ (13:51).
Wednesday, March 15
Matthew 17:14-20: Before commenting on this text, it is worth mentioning that verse 21 does appear to belong here. This is not to say that the words are inauthentic, or that Jesus never said them. It means only that this verse seems not to have been part of the original writing of Matthew. I am drawing this conclusion chiefly from the fact that it is missing the two earliest codices of Matthew (the manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). It seems to have found its way into the text early, however, being taken over from Mark 9:29.
Whereas Matthew greatly simplifies and shortens Mark's version of this story in the narrative parts, he actually amplifies the ˝sayingţ part of it in verse 20. He does this in two ways: (1) He inserts here the Lord's reference to faith as a mustard seed, a dominical saying found in quite another context in Luke 17:6. (2) Jesus here speaks of the disciples' ˝small faithţ (oligopistia). We saw earlier that this New Testament expression, ˝small faith,ţ either as a noun (here only) or an adjective, is found almost exclusively in Matthew; cf. 6:6; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8 (otherwise only in Luke 12:28). Faith, according to Matthew, is understood as trust in the authority (exsousia) of Jesus (8:9-13; 9:2). Miracles are said to be worked by faith (9:20-22, 28f). In three scenes where Mark and Luke do not do so, Matthew portrays Jesus as saying, ˝as you have believed, so be it done to youţ (8:13; 9:29; 15:8).
We may look at some other features of Matthew's version of this event.
First, when the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down--gonypeton, literally ˝bending the kneeţ-before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he knees before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! -- ˝Lord, have mercy!ţ
Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, then, the man kneels before Jesus in prayer. Here we have the second of two consecutive scenes in Matthew (the first being the Transfiguration in 17:6) that portray the believers before Jesus on bended knew.
This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguraiton, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) bends the knee Avton--˝towards Him.ţ
And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as ˝Lordţ--Kyrios). We should contrast this with Mark's account, which addresses Jesus here as ˝Teacherţ--Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).
And just what is wrong with the man's son? He is ˝moonstruckţ--seleniatai, from the Greek noun selene, which means ˝moon.ţ This original sense is preserved in the ancient Latin form of this verse, lunaticus est.
˝Lunaticţ is the way that the ancients described someone mentally or emotionally unstable, meaning that such a person waxed and waned like the moon, up one day, down the next. Such a person was given to radical changes of mood, like the moon. He changed shapes, as it were, even to the point of disappearing sometimes. Such a person showed the instability of the moon, going through cycles. (The Old Testament's description of Saul is a useful example to recall.) In the present case the little boy seemed sometimes to attempt to kill himself, flinging himself into fire or water.
If we compare Matthew's account with that of Mark, we easily see that the latter is longer and much more colorful and dramatic. Matthew's version is not only shorter; it is greatly simplified. Although the father tells of the boy's violent behavior, in Matthew this behavior does not take place in Jesus' presence. In Matthew this is a scene of worship, as we have observed, and the tone is one of serenity, prayer, and divine grace.
The father remarks, however, that Jesus' disciples were unable to effect a cure--therapevsai, and when Jesus does drive out the demon, Matthew says that the boy was ˝curedţ--etherapevthe.
Thursday, March 16
Matthew 17:22-27: This account, found only in Matthew, once again shows a special solidarity between Jesus and Peter, inasmuch as the taxes of both are paid by the same coin.
In spite of his being called ˝Satanţ by the Lord, then, Peter did not really fall from the Lord's favor; the Apostle was warned and reprimanded, not rejected. Indeed, even after those stern words in chapter 16, Peter was still chosen as one of the three disciples who witnessed the Lord's transfiguration at the beginning of this chapter.
In the present text, as in every other New Testament text that speaks of his fishing, we may wonder about Peter's skills as a fisherman. In every single gospel account, whenever Peter catches a fish, the event is regarded as a miracle.
This text also serves to instruct on the obligation of believers to pay taxes to the government.
Friday, March 17
Matthew 18:1-9: Here begin the sayings that form the fourth great dominical discourse in Matthew; this one is devoted to what may be called ˝rules for the congregation.ţ It begins by the memorable scene in which Jesus holds up the faith of children as a model for adults. Far from refusing children access to Jesus until they arrive at the explicit and doctrinal faith of adults, Jesus admonishes adults to model their own faith on the more elementary faith of the child. Because children are the most in danger of being scandalized, this topic of children leads naturally into the subject of scandal, and in this connection come the Lord's statements about millstones and self-mutilation. The latter are certainly to be understood by way of hyperbole.
Going through in more detail, we begin with question of which of the disciples is the greatest (verses 1-5). In the parallel text in Mark 9:33-37, the disciples themselves argued which of themselves was the greatest. Matthew not only changes the question, then, he changes also the context of the question. It is no longer a debate among competing apostles; it is a question put to Jesus, as though a point of speculation. The question becomes spiritual and theological; it pertains to the Kingdom of Heaven. When the question is answered in verse 4, it is still about the Kingdom of Heaven.
The ˝childţ held up as a model here is a paidion, roughly meaning someone under the age of twelve, someone who has not yet made the bar mitzvah. That is to say, it is a ˝kind,ţ someone not quite taken seriously. Hence, the lesson is one of humility. Elaborating on the point (verses 3-4, for which there are no parallels in the accounts of Mark and Luke), Jesus says that unless one becomes a paidion, he will not even enter the Kingdom, much less be contender for ˝greatestţ ccf. 20:26-27; 23:11-12).
Then Jesus asserts in a positive way (verse 4) what He has just affirmed negatively (verse 3). This disregard for power and social status elaborates what Jesus said about the poor in spirit in 5:3.
At first, verse 5, about receiving the ˝little one,ţ seems to have nothing to do with the context. In placer of the childlike quality of humility, our attention is drawn to the children themselves and how they are to be treated.
In Mark's version, in fact, this action and the words of Jesus do not appear, at first sight, even to address the question about which the Apostles have been arguing.
This impression is misleading. In telling the Church how to receive children, Matthew is preparing for the next section, on scandal. Verse 5 sets the positive stage for the coming warning about scandal. Jesus affirms that those who receive children, receive Him. He identifies Himself with children.
And how are we to receive children? From the hand of God. Anytime there is an ˝unwanted child,ţ somebody can expect to render an answer at the throne of God. Receptivity is the Christian's fundamental response to the appearance of children in this world (cf. 10:40; 25:31-46). This is all Jesus has to say on the subject of birth control.
Then Matthew (but not Mark and Luke) begins the section on scandal (verses 6-9), which follows immediately on the appearance of the child. It begins with a solemn warning not to scandalize the ˝little believersţ (micros pistevon).
Here we have some of the toughest, harshest verses in the New Testament: images of being drowned with a millstone around one's neck, the cutting off of a hand, the gouging out of an eye-all suggesting the difficulty of getting into the Kingdom of Heaven.
To give scandal, in the biblical sense, does not mean to shock. It means to give spiritual harm, even though shock does sometimes accompany scandal. Scandal means to hurt someone spiritually, to cause to sin, to degrade someone's conscience. In the present text the word is found six times, whether as a verb or a noun.
In the first instance it refers to the spiritual harm done to a child or young person. The Lord's mind in this case is the reverse side of His love and preference for children. The punishment that He threatens to those who cause spiritual harm to children is an expression of His own love for children.
Those who would imitate Christ, then, must be protectors of children (born or unborn!); this is not an option for Christians, but the obligation rests more clearly on parents and those with responsibility in loco parentum, such as teachers, and counselors. For this reason, the spiritual protection of children is an essential feature of those with a responsibility of spiritual fatherhood in the Church, namely, bishops and priests. It is bishops and priests, perhaps, who are most threatened with this millstone around the neck.
What, then, is a skandalon? The word means a ˝trapţ or ˝snare,ţ a device to trip someone. Therefore it is of the nature of a skandalon that it takes someone by surprise; he is caught before he knows it.
In the case of children, then, a scandal is caused by those whom the child trusts, those whom the child is supposed to trust, those whom the child has been taught to trust. Understood thus, a scandal is the violation of a trust; it preys on the vulnerability of the child. Clearly, in the way that the New Testament speaks of this sin, it is especially heinous. The one who does it will be drowned, says the Sacred Text, en to pelagei tes thalasses. He will sink to the very bottom, because this is the worst of sins.
Copyright © 2004 by the Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.
Home - FSJ - Mere Comments - Store - Speakers & Conferences - Archives - Contact Us